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Otto Fabricius: Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

Otto Fabricius

EA-Biography
(Kaj Birket-Smith)

OTTO FABRICIUS

Otto (or Otho) Fabricius (1744-1822), Danish missionary and scientist,
was born on March 6, 1744, in Rudkøbing, a small town on the island of Lange–
land, Denmark, a son of the Rev. Hans S. and Else Cathrine (Ursin) Fabricius.
His father, who a ppointed dean in 1751, was at that time a man of rather
ample means. In his library the boy was able to find not only works on divin–
ity, but also on geography and history, and he was, as he himself said in later
years, possessed of an insatiable lust for studying. Moreover, the older Fabri–
cius was a friend of the famous J H ans Egede, founder of the Greenland mission,
who had then retired from his labors in the Far North and had sometimes the
opportunity of visiting the deanery on his journeys. There can be little doubt
that both facts contributed very essentially to stimulate Otto's interest in
the country where he was to spend the most important years of his life.
When he was only eleven years old his father died and left the family in
narrow circumstances, but after he had started his theological studies at Copen–
hagen University in 1762 he was to some extent supported by his well-to-do grand–
mother. Soon after his older half-brother, the son of his father by a previous
marriage, returned from Greenland where he had worked as a missionary for some
years. Fabricius had now definitely made up his mind to enter the service of
the mission himself, and after having been instructed in the Eskimo language by
Paul Egede, a son of Hans Egede, at the Greenland Seminary in Copenhagen, he left
for the Arctic as a young divine in the summer of 1768.

EA-Biography. Birket-Smith: Otto Fabricius

Frederikshaab, the place where Fabricius was appointed, was at that
period the southernmost Danish settlement on the west coast of Greenland.
It [ is true that it ] had been established 26 years before, but owing to the
polar ice pack that usually blocks the coast till some time in June, navi–
gation was considered dangerous, and communication was infrequent. The native
inhabitants of the district were still very primitive; they kept up their
roving habits, and blood feuds between families were far from being uncommon.
There was still no church building at the settlement and only a single house
with one room for the merchant, another for the missionary, and a third for the
sailors. At that time the colonization had lasted long enough to make clear
the unavoidable conflict between the economic demands of the Eskimos, to whom
hunting excursions and a more or less constant continuous roaming from one place to an–
other were of vital importance, and on the other hand the interests of the
Mission that preferred to gather the population at one place where it might
remain under the [: constant] influence of the missionary.
Fabricius was an ardent and efficient servant of the Gospel, but he soon
realized that it was a poor recommendation of his teachings, if Christianity
was to be accompanied by increasing poverty. Accordingly he not only supported
the inclinations of the native population to move away from the settlement,
but he actually decided to do so himself. In 1770 he left Frederikshaab and
settled at Iluilarssuk, one of the small inhabited places a few miles farther south,
and remained there until he left Greenland for good in 1773. Easily contented
and hardy to a degree, he took up the way of life of the Eskimos, thus gaining
their confidence and good will. He dressed as a native and became an expert
in handling a kayak. He also accompanied the hunters on their excursions and
even attained considerable skill in sealing with the harpoon. A century and
a half later the inhabitants of the place still preserved his memory in grate–
ful remembrance.

EA-Biography. Birket-Smith: Otto Fabricius

When Fabricius left Greenland he received first in 1774 a position as
parson in Drangedal in southern Norway (which at that time was politically
united with Denmark). It was a lonely place, and he did not get on well with
his parishioners. After five years he went to Denmark where he was a parson,
1779-81, in the small town of Hobro and afterwards, 1781-83, in the village of
Rise on AErø south of Funen. In 1783, however, he was presented to a living
in Copenhagen, until 1789 as a priest at the Orphans' Asylum and then as parson
of one of the main churches, Our Saviour, which has always had close connections
with the Greenland mission. In this position he remained till his death on May
20, 1822. From 1783-on he also acted as lecturer at the Greenland Seminary,
thus instructing the young missionaries in the Eskimo language, and was the
actual, if not the official, leader of this institution.
He was married twice, in 1775 to Anne Dorthe (Ziege) Fabricius who died in
1785, and the following year to Anne Gunilde (Heinet) Fabricius, who died in
1834. During his lifetime he obtained many acknowledgements for his achieve–
ments both as a missionary and a scientist. As early as 1780 he was elected
member of the Royal Danish Academy of Science and two years later of the Gesell–
schaft naturforschender Freunde in Berlin. In 1803 he obtained the title of
professor and in 1818 was made honorary bishop and doctor of divinity.
Fabricius was hardly important as an orator, but he was a pious Christian.
As a divine he was a strictly orthodox Lutheran and rather conservative, but by
no means blind to the importance of reforms on certain points, for instance the
ritual of the church. He also wrote some theological books on exegetic subjects,
a collection of sermons, etc., which, however, do not concern us here. His
principal achievements were in the field of science, to which he made consid–
erable contributions as a zoologist, a linguist, and an ethnologist.

EA-Biography. Birket-Smith: Otto Fabricius

It is probable that this zoological interest dates back to his boyhood,
although direct evidence to this effect is lacking. Besides, it is not un–
likely that the keen faculty of observation of the Eskimos in all matters
concerning the animals of their country may have acted as a further stimulus.
At any rate, he began making observations on the fauna as soon as he arrived
in Greenland. A great number of his notes he sent to O.F. Müller, the well–
known Danish zoologist in Copenhagen, who published them in his own papers,
for which reason they often have been known to the public under Müller's name.
Fabricius' main work as a zoologist appeared in the Latin language under
the title Fauna Groenlandica (Copenhagen & Leipzig 1780). It has rightly been
characterized as the first scientific description of the Greenland fauna. No
less than 473 species, including 132 vertebrates and 341 invertebrates, are
treated in the 468 pages of this book. About 130 of the animals described are
new to science, although some of them, as just mentioned, had already been re–
ferred to by O.F. Müller, Up to this time, for instance, the only seals known
were the spotted seal and the bladdernose, but Fabricius added the ringed,
barbed, and Greenland species. He introduced his work with a description of
"Homo Groenlandus" and thence proceeded through the entire animal kingdom, con–
cluding with the marine sponges. For each species he first gave the synonymy,
then a description of the general characters, habitat, biology, and finally
information about its use and the method of hunting employed by the Eskimos.
As a whole the work is distinguished by painstaking exactness and care, being
based almost exclusively on the author's personal observations. The biological
parts are particularly valuable. The number of species discussed is, of course,
only a small part of the animals at present known to belong to the fauna of
Greenland It should be borne in mind, however, that at that time the west

EA-Biography. Birket-Smith: Otto Fabricius

coast was the only part of the country from which useful information was
available, and very limited possibilities for exploring the aquatic fauna
were at hand. Moreover, Fabricius had to carry out his investigations by the
simplest methods; he was not even in possession of a microscope. Under such
circumstances it was an achievement of considerable merit to produce a work
that created the foundation of all subsequent studies of this kind and is cited
even to-day.
The Fauna was Fabricius' principal work in zoology but by no means the
only one. He was the first author to prove that the food of the great whalebone
whales consists of small crustaceans and winged snails ("Om Hvalaaset," Nye
Samling af det Kgl. Danske Videnskabernes-Selskabs Skrivter
. I. 1781). In
1788 he published a paper on the polar fox ("Field-Ræ ven," Ibidem . III), and
in 1790 a monograph on the seals of Greenland ("Udførlig Beskrivelse over de
Gronlandske Sæ le," Skrivter af Naturhistorie-Selskabet . I); in the latter work
he added the first description of the gray seal to the species previously dis–
cussed in the Fauna . He also wrote on the king eider ("Om den pukkelnebbede
Edderfugl." Det Kgl. Danske Videnskabernes-Selskabs Skrivter . II. 1793) and
the humpback whale ("Om Stub-Hvalen," Ibidem . VI. 1818).
After he had left Greenland Fabricius continued his zoological observations
and published several papers on various subjects. He has shown, for instance,
that two forms of a certain fish ( Labrus ) are, in reality, the male and female
animal of the same species, and that hogmeasles are the larvae of a tapeworm,
an observation made already by Malpighi, the famous Italian naturalist, but later
forgotten. It may be added that he also published a paper on the drifting ice
("Om Driv-Isen i de Nordlige Vande," Nye Samling af det Kgl. Danske Videnskaber–
nes-Selskabs Skrivter
. III. 1788). Here he realized the fundamental difference

EA-Biography. Birket-Smith: Otto Fabricius

between the icebergs originating from the inland ice, and the polar ice pack.
His view concerning the icebergs is, of course, unsatisfactory, because the
glacier movements were still unknown at that period, nor had he himself seen
any of the great ice fjords of North Greenland. As to the polar ice pack, he
ventured the opinion that it originated from Siberian waters, supporting his
view by the fact that it was accompanied by a great amount of driftwood con–
sisting of spruce, pine, larch, and aspen: even though his theory is not quite
correct, it gives evidence, at least, of his keen faculty of observation and
logical inference.
Fabricius' linguistic works are closely connected with his activities as
a missionary and lecturer on the Eskimo language. He published a collection
of 178 hymns by various authors, including himself ( Ivngerut tuksiutidlo , Copen–
hagen 1788) and, in 1799, a new translation of the New Testament. On his death–
bed he read the proofs of a translation of Genesis. From a scientific point of
view, however, the main value is to be found in his grammar ( Forsøg til en
forbedret Gronlandsk Grammatica
, Copenhagen 1791) and his dictionary (Den Grøn–
landske Ordbog, forbedret og foroget , Copenhagen 1804). Both works are to some
extent based upon the earlier grammar and dictionary by Paul Egede, and so far
as the dictionary is concerned, he also received considerable assistance from
the notes of other missionaries. Nevertheless he shows great independence in
the treatment of his material, much of which was derived from his personal ob–
servations. Frederikshaab District, where he had lived in close contact with
the native inhabitants, was in certain respects particularly well suited for
linguistic studies, because many of the Eskimos there had traveled as far as
the northern part of West Greenland, while on the other hand it was regularly
visited by Eskimos from the Cape Farewell region.

EA-Biography. Birket-Smith: Otto Fabricius

Fabricius created a more adequate orthography, and in the vocabulary he
deliberately avoided an extensive use of loan-words for the designation of
foreign concepts and instead introduced new words constructed according to
the Eskimo patterns, thus initiating a tendency to keep the language uncon–
taminated by outside influences which has prevailed to this day. In the grammar
he still to some extent followed the principles of Latin constructions, speak–
ing, for instance, of adjectives, tenses, cases, etc., which are, of course,
foreign to the Eskimo language. On the other hand, his linguistic publications
all evince the same qualities of unwearied industry and scrupulous accuracy
as his zoological works. Samuel Kleinschmidt, the Moravian missionary, who
nearly a century after Fabricius was the first to arrive at a real understand–
ing of the peculiarities of the Eskimo language, expressed his deep admiration
for Fabricius' linguistic knowledge.
His ethnological works are closely connected with his activities as a
zoologist. Living among the Eskimos and taking part in their hunting, a person
of his abilities and power of observation could not avoid noticing the perfec–
tion of their implements and the high degree of adaptation of their methods.
As already mentioned, the Fauna includes many descriptions of hunting methods
and the various kinds of use to which the animals are put. The same is true
of his papers on the polar fox, the king eider, and the humpback whale; the
latter gives a particularly interesting account of the hunting of both the
humpback and the sperm whale.
Two of his papers are, however, exclusively dedicated to ethnological
subjects, one of them dealing with all the implements of the seal hunt (" Nøiagtig
Beskrivelse over alle Gronlandernes Fange-Redskaber ved Saelhunde-Fangsten,"
[: ] Det Kgl. Danske Videnskabernes-Selskabs Skrivter . V. 1810),

EA-Biography. Birket-Smith: Otto Fabricius

and the other one with dear hunting, fowling, and fishing and the appertinent
implements ("Nøiagtig Beskrivelse over Grønlandernes Landdyr-, Fugle-og Fiske–
fangst med dertil horende Redskaber," Ibidem. VI. 1818). It is no exaggera–
tion to say that in both works he is far ahead of his time. Never before and
very rarely since has any trained ethnologist described the implements of a
primitive people with greater care and understanding. It is not only that every
single hunting weapon and implement as well as the way in which they are employed
are mentioned, but every detail and its significance to the use are explained
in such a manner as can only be done by a person who is thoroughly acquainted
with them from experience.
Thus, whereas Fabricius as a missionary can hardly claim more attention
than many of his brother officials, his name as a man of science has rather
increased than otherwise in the time that has elaps e é d since his death.
Reference:
Kornerup, B., Schultz-Lorentzen and Jensen, Ad. S., Biskop dr. theol. Otto
Fabricius, Meddelelser om Grønland . LXII. Copenhagen 1923.
Kaj Birket-Smith
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